Forty feet down in the Pacific Ocean off Point Loma, Calif. there is a submarine ledge called Hope Rock. A few lobsters live there, a few kelp bass and a number of lesser fish. Large fish occasionally stop there to grab a bite, and harbor seals scout the place now and again but, all in all, Hope Rock is a run-of-the-mill ledge, worth notice only because it was the birthplace of sport diving in the U.S. It was there at Hope Rock, 34 years ago, that a San Diego man named Glenn L. Orr made his first chaotic descent into the sea and, after nearly dying, concluded that diving could be fun.
Obviously Orr was correct, for in recent years sport diving has spread to all the waters of the land. In Greater San Diego, where Glenn Orr began, there are now more than 8,000 divers, and in this vast, flippered throng one of the most competent is still 58-year-old Glenn Orr. A lot of water has passed through Orr's sinuses in the past 34 years, but he has not tired of the sea.
Shortly after Orr started diving, he won over a few close friends to the sport and organized a club called the Bottom Scratchers. Orr and the other Bottom Scratchers were, at the start, dismissed lightly as a pack of demented lemmings, who often flirted with death in the gloom half a mile or more at sea. As they developed skill, the Bottom Scratchers began bringing in better fish than topside anglers could take in a week. From the deep they brought back their limit of abalone, often eating them on the shore, where ordinary people scrounged around for an abalone or two between the tide lines.
In time the ridicule turned to envy and respect. Whenever a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth, an automobile, a boat or the body of a child was lost in the sea, a Bottom Scratcher—usually Orr—was asked to find it. Orr is today well known around San Diego as a hunter and retriever (his present score is 207 boats, 15 bodies, 12 automobiles), but so many of his exploits date from so long ago that some of the young divers believe he is dead. Every now and again divers are surprised to find that the small man putting on flippers near them is Glenn Orr. It is as if Abner Doubleday suddenly showed up at spring training.
Although Orr can honestly be called the father of sport diving in the U.S., he neither wants nor expects a standing ovation on that count. He has always maintained it was a case of unplanned parenthood, and a slightly illicit one, at that. On the day that Orr made his first descent onto Hope Rock and discovered a new world for sport, he had not intended even going into the water. In the late '20s he earned his living as a rumrunner and as a distiller of a quality corn whiskey that was guaranteed to drown all sorrows but leave stomach linings intact. To throw the feds off the track, he also worked for token pay as tender for a professional diver and steady drinker named Jack Sullivan, who occasionally tore himself away from the bottle to dive for a valuable marine alga called agar weed.
On the day that Orr first dived Sullivan had planned to harvest agar weed at Hope Rock, but he started nipping at a bottle. By the time Orr got him into his full diving suit and helmet, Sullivan had passed out. When he came to, Orr easily persuaded him that he was not fit to dive. Then, with Sullivan's fumbling help, Orr got into the suit, on the optimistic theory that the sun had cooked enough alcohol out of Sullivan to allow him at least to serve as tender on deck. Orr's theory was wrong: Sullivan passed out again just as he started lowering Orr slowly to the bottom. Since Orr was properly weighted with 25-pound shoes and a 90-pound belt, he dropped like an anchor. By the time he struck the top of Hope Rock, 40 feet down, he was already valving air into his suit to keep from being crushed by pressure. He valved in entirely too much and soared upward. He quickly depressed the escape button to bleed off the burgeoning air supply, but being an utter novice at it, he let out too much. He again plummeted, this time bouncing off Hope Rock and settling 20 feet deeper in a spiny nest of sea urchins. Once again he valved in too much air and soared all the way to the surface, where he floated helplessly, his suit so full of air that he could not move an arm or leg. Sullivan, meanwhile, had revived. He hauled Orr's bloated form alongside and coolly inserted a finger in the cuff of the suit to vent off air. He let out too much, and Orr hit Hope Rock for the third time. Orr is not a man who makes rash judgments, but at that point he began to lose confidence in Sullivan. He tugged on his lifeline, indicating that he wished to be raised, but Sullivan had passed out again. After pulling 150 feet of slack line down onto Hope Rock, Orr managed to climb back to the deck and get the boat to port, where the Coast Guard arrested Sullivan for operating while drunk.
The dangerous way that Orr bounced up and down on Hope Rock should have killed his interest in diving. In fact, it should have killed Orr. Somehow it did neither. The fish, the abundance of abalone, the lush patches of agar weed stirring in the frittered shafts of sunlight, everything that Orr saw while bouncing, convinced him that he had found a new kingdom of plenty, a new land of liberty. "I am pushing 60," Orr says, remembering the past 34 years, "but somehow I never got rid of the boy in me. Underwater there always seems to be another side of another mountain, a new place."
Shortly after his traumatic discovery of the new world, Orr also found—again by accident—a simple and cheap way to enjoy it. In a small fishing store in Los Angeles he came across a pair of goggles, and for the better part of a year Orr and three close friends—the charter members of the Bottom Scratchers—shared the goggles, taking turns diving for abalone. The store-bought goggles were barely adequate. For one thing, because the panes of glass did not lie in the same plane, Orr and his buddies always saw double—two abalones where there was really one. (Orr had mistakenly bought goggles designed, not for diving, but for protecting the eyes of long-distance swimmers.)
One of the original Bottom Scratchers was a habitual tinkerer named Jack Prodanovich, a deft and muscular little man who today, at 53, still looks as if he could tear a safe apart with his hands. Prodanovich made goggles for the club by inserting round glass from cheap compacts into sections of radiator hose that he cut to fit snugly in the eye sockets. By trial and error, with little outside inspiration, in their first 10 years the Bottom Scratchers had developed most of the equipment that free-diving hunters and snorkelers use today. Prodanovich, who has always been the prime tinkerer of the group, had even provided himself with prescription lenses to correct his natural nearsightedness underwater and had built a waterproof box camera. Flippers were the only important item that the Bottom Scratchers did not make for themselves before they were available in stores. In the '30s they became so adept at propelling themselves down 30, 40 and 50 feet with their arms and their stumpy, God-given feet that the idea of flippers simply eluded them.
It was a good 15 years after the Bottom Scratchers started that the sport began to spread around the country. And it was another 10 years before masks, flippers and spear guns became standard items in the pile of sporting goods that are crammed into the average American closet. If diving is such a dandy sport, why was it so long in catching on? There are a number of reasons. For one, the sport was born in the right town but at the wrong time. San Diego today is crowded with fun-loving waterbugs, but at the start of the '30s the chief users of its waters were commercial fishermen, the U.S. Navy and, to a lesser extent, the Army Air Corps, whose pilots had no particular love of the sea although they frequently fell into it. In those days there were always sailors loose and restless around town, but few of them cared to chase fish while in port.